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mind. He was lucky enough to be God
A'mighty's own man.'

' And other folk — d'ye think 'twill be
much pain to 'em, Master Fairway ? '

' That depends on whether they be
afeard.'

* I baint afeard at all, I thank God ! ' said
Christian strenuously. ' I'm glad I bain't, for
then 'twon't pain me. . . I don't think I be
afeard — or if I be I can't help it, and I don't
deserve to suffer. I wish I was not afeard
at all.'

There was a solemn silence, and looking
from the window, which was unshuttered
and unblinded, Timothy said, 'Well, what a
fess little bonfire that one is, out by Cap'n
Drew's ! 'Tis burning just the same now
as ever, upon my life.'



I08 THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE.

All glances went through the window,
and nobody noticed that Wildeve disguised
a brief, tell-tale look. Far away up the
sombre valley of heath, and to the right of
Blackbarrow, could Indeed be seen the light,
small, but steady and persistent as before.

' It was lighted before ours was,' Falrv/ay
continued ; ' and yet every one In the country
round Is out afore 'n.'

' Perhaps there's meaning In It ! ' mur-
mured Christian.

' How meaning ? ' said Wildeve sharply.

Christian was too scattered to reply, and
Timothy helped him.

' He means, sir, that the lonesome dark-
eyed creature up there that some say is a
witch — ever I should call a fine young woman
such a name — Is always up to some odd con-
ceit or other ; and so perhaps 'tis she.'

'I'd be very glad to ask her In wedlock,
if she'd hae me, and take the risk of her
wild dark eyes ill-wishing me,' said Grandter
Cantle staunchly.



THE THREE WOMEN. IO9

' Don't ye say It, father ! ' implored
Christian.

' Well, be dazed if he who do marry the
maid won't hae an uncommon picture for his
best parlour,' said Fairway in a liquid tone,
placing down the cup of mead at the end
of a good pull.

'And a partner as deep as the North
Star,' said Sam, taking up the cup and
finlshlnor the little that remained.

' Well, really, now I think we must be
moving,' said Humphrey, observing the
emptiness of the vessel.

' But we'll gle 'em another song ? ' said
Grandfer Cande. * I'm as full of notes as a
bird.'

' Thank you, Grandfer,' said Wildeve.
* But we will not trouble you now. Some
other day must do for that— when I have a
party.'

' Be jown'd if I don't learn ten new sones
for t, or I won't learn a line ! ' said Grandfer
Cande. 'And you may be sure I won't



no THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE.

disappoint ye by biding away, Mr. Wild-
eve.'

^ I quite believe you,' said that gentle-
man.

All then took their leave, wishing their
entertainer long life and happiness as a
married man, with recapitulations which
occupied some time. Wildeve attended them
to the door, beyond which the deep-dyed
upward stretch of heath stood awaiting them,
an amplitude of darkness reigning from their
feet almost to the zenith, where a definite
form first became visible in the lowering
forehead of Blackbarrow. Diving into the
dense obscurity in a line headed by Sam
the turf-cutter, they pursued their trackless
way home.

When the scratching of the furze against
their leggings had fainted upon the ear
Wildeve returned to the room where he had
left Thomasin and her aunt. The women
were gone.

They could only have left the house in



THE THREE WOMEN. I I I

one wa}', by the back window ; and this was
open.

Wildeve laughed to himself, remained a
moment thinking, and Idly returned to the
front room. Here his glance fell upon a
bottle of wine which stood on the mantel-
piece. ' Ah — old Dowden ! ' he murmured ;
and going to the kitchen door shouted, ' Is
anybody here who can take something to old
Dowden ? '

There w^as no reply. The room was
empty, the lad who acted as his factotum
having gone to bed. Wildeve came back,
put on his hat, took the bottle, and left the
house, turning the key In the door, for there
was no guest at the Inn to-night. As soon as
he was on the road the little bonfire on Mist-
over Knap again met his eye.

' Still waiting, are you, my lady ? ' he
murmured.

However, he did not proceed that way
just then ; but leaving the hill to the left of
him, he stumbled over a rutted road that



I 1 2 THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE.

brought him to a cottage which, Hke all other
habitations on the heath at this hour, was
only saved from being invisible by a faint
shine from its bedroom window. This house
was the home of Oily Dowden, the besom-
maker, and he entered.

The lower room was In darkness ; but by
feeling his way he found a table, whereon
he placed the bottle, and a minute later
emerged again upon the heath. He stood and
looked northwards at the undying little
fire — high up above him, though not so high
as Blackbarrow. It was the eame which had
attracted so much attention among the other
men that night, through being the longest
lasting of all the bonfires in the Egdon
district.

We have been told what happens when a
woman deliberates ; and the epigram is not
always terminable with woman, provided that
one be in the case, and that a fair one.
Wlldeve stood, and stood longer, and breathed
perplexedly, and then said to himself with



THE THREE WOMEN. I I 3

resignation, * Yes — by Heaven, I must go to
her, I suppose ! '

Instead of turning in the direction of
home, he pressed on rapidly by a path near
Blackbarrow towards what was evidently a
signal light.



VOL. I.



114 THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE.



CHAPTER VI.

THE FIGURE AGAINST THE SKY.

When the whole Egdon conclave had left the
site of the bonfire to its accustomed loneliness
a closely-wrapped female figure approached
the barrow from that quarter of the heath in
which the little fire lay. Had the reddleman
been watching he might have recognised her
as the woman who had first stood there so
singularly, and vanished at the approach of
strangers. She ascended to her old position
at the top, where the red coals of the perish-
ing fire greeted her like living eyes in the
corpse of day. There she stood still, around
her stretching the vast night atmosphere,
whose incomplete darkness in comparison
with the total darkness of the heath below it



THE THREE WOMEN. I I 5

might have represented a venial beside a
mortal sin.

That she was tall and straight in build,
that she was lady-like in her movements, was
all that could be learnt of her just now, her
form being wrapped in a shawl folded in the
old cornerwise fashion, and her head in a
large kerchief, a protection not superfluous
at this hour and place. Her back was to-
wards the wind, which blew from the north-
west ; but whether she had adopted that
aspect because of the chilly gusts which played
about her exceptional position, or because her
interest lay in the south-east, did not at first
appear.

Her reason for standing so dead still as
the pivot of this circle of heath-country was
just as obscure. Her extraordinary fixity, her
conspicuous loneliness, her heedlessness of
niofht, betokened amongf other thinos an utter
absence of fear. A tract of country unaltered
from that sinister condition Avhich made
Czesar anxious every year to get clear of its



12



1X6 THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE.

glooms before the autumnal equinox, a kind
of landscape and weather which leads travel-
lers from the South to contlnuallv describe
our island as Homer's Cimmerian land, was
not, on the face of it, friendly to woman.

It might reasonably have been supposed
that she was listening to the wind, which rose
somewhat as the night advanced, and laid
hold of the attention. The wind, indeed,
seemed made for the scene, as the scene
seemed made for the hour. Part of its tone
was quite special ; what was heard there
could be heard nowhere else. Gusts in in-
numerable series followed each other from the
north-west, and when each one of them raced
past the sound of its progress resolved into
three. Treble, tenor, and bass notes were to
be found therein. The general ricochet of
the whole over pits and prominences had the
gravest pitch of the chime. Next there could
be heard the baritone buzz of a holly tree.
Below these in force, above them in pitch, a
dwindled voice strove hard at a husky tune,



THE THREE WOMEN. II7

which was the peciiHar local sound alluded to.
Thinner and less immediately traceable than
the other two, it was far more impressive than
either. In it lay what may be called the
linguistic peculiarity of the heath ; and being
audible nowhere on earth off a heath, it
afforded a shadow of reason for the woman's
tenseness, which continued as unbroken as
ever.

Throughout the blowing of these plaintive
November winds that note bore a great re-
semblance to the ruins of human song which
remain to the throat of four-score-and-ten.
It was a worn whisper, dry and papery, and
it brushed so distinctly across the ear that, by
the accustomed, the material minuti^e in which
it originated could be realised as by touch.
It was the united products of infinitesimal
vegetable causes, and these were neither
stems nor twigs, neither leaves nor fruit,
neither blades nor prickles, neither lichen nor
moss.

They were the mummied heath-bells of



Il8 THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE.

the past summer, originally tender and purple,
now washed colourless by Michaelmas rains,
and dried to dead skins by October suns.
So low was an individual sound from these
that a combination of hundreds only just
emerged from silence, and the myriads of the
whole declivity reached the woman's ear but
as a shrivelled and intermittent recitative.
Yet scarcely a single accent among the many
afloat to-night could have such power to im-
press a listener with thoughts of its origin.
One inwardly saw the infinity of those com-
bined multitudes : one perceived that each of
the tiny trumpets was seized on, entered,
scoured and emerged from by the wind as
thoroughly as if it were as vast as a crater.

' The spirit moved them.' A meaning of
the phrase forced itself upon the attention ;
and an emotional listener's fetichistic mood
might have ended in one of more advanced
quality. It was not, after all, that the left-
hand expanse of old blooms spoke, or the
right-hand, or those of the slope in front. It



THE THREE WOMEN. II9

was the single person of something else
speaking through each in turn.

Suddenly, on the barrow, there mingled
with all this wild rhetoric of night a sound
which modulated so naturally into the rest,
that its beginning and ending were hardly to
be distinguished. The bluffs had broken
silence, the bushes had broken silence, the
heather-bells had broken silence ; at last, so
did the woman ; and her articulation was but
as another phrase of the same discourse as
theirs. Thrown out on the Avinds it became
twined in with them, and with them it flew
away.

What she uttered was a leno^thened siofh-
ing, apparently at something in her mind
which had led to her presence here. There
was a spasmodic abandonment about it as if,
in allowinor herself to utter the sound, the
w^oman's brain had authorised what it could
not regulate. One point was evident in this :
she had been existing in a suppressed state,
and not in one of languor or stagnation.



I20 THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE.

Far away down the valley the faint shine
from the window of the inn still lasted on ;
and a few additional moments proved that
the window, or what was within it, had more
to do with the woman's sigh than had either
her own actions or the scene immediately
around. She lifted her left hand, and re-
vealed that it held a closed telescope. This
she rapidly extended, as if she were well-
accustomed to the operation, and raising it to
her eye directed it exactly towards the light
beaming from the inn.

The handkerchief which had hooded her
head was now a little thrown back, her face
being somewhat elevated. A profile was visi-
ble against the dull monochrome of cloud
around her ; and it was as though side-sha-
dows from the features of Marie Antoinette
and Mrs. Siddons had converged upwards
from the tomb to form an image like neither
but suggesting both. This, however, was
mere superficiality. In respect of character a
face may make certain admissions by its out-



THE THREE WOMEN. 121

line ; but it fully confesses only in its changes.
So much is this the case that what is called the
play of the features often helps more in under-
standing a man or woman than the earnest
labours of all the other members together.
Thus the nio^ht revealed little of her whose
form it was embracing, for the mobile parts of
her countenance could not be seen.

At last she gave up her spying attitude,
closed the telescope, and turned to the decay-
ing embers. From these no appreciable
beams now radiated, except when a more
than usually smart gust brushed over their
faces and raised a fitful glow which came and
went like the blush of a girl. She stooped
over the silent circle, and selecting from the
brands a piece of stick which bore the largest
live coal at its end, brought it to where she
had been standing before.

She held the brand to the ground, blowing
the red coal with her mouth at the same
time. It faintly illuminated the sod, and re-
vealed a small object, which turned out to be



122 THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE.

an hourc^lass. She blew long enough to show
that the sand had all slipped through.

' Ah ! ' she said, as if surprised.

The light raised by her breath had been
very precarious, and a momentary irradiation
of flesh was all that it had disclosed of her
face. That consisted of two matchless lips
and a cheek only, her head being still en-
veloped. She threw away the stick, took the
glass in her hand, the telescope under her
arm, and moved on.

Along the ridge ran a faint foot-track,
which the lady followed. Those who knew
it well called it a path ; and, while a mere
visitor would have passed it unnoticed even
by day, the regular haunters of the heath
were at no loss for it at midnight. The whole
secret of following these incipient paths, when
there was not light enough In the atmosphere
to show a turnpike-road, lay in the develop-
ment of the sense of touch in the feet, which
comes with years of night-rambling in little-
trodden spots. To a walker practised in



THE THREE WOMEN. I 23



such places a difference between impact on
maiden herbage, and on the crippled stalks
of a slight footway, is perceptible through the
thickest boot or shoe.

The solitary figure who walked this beat
took no notice of the windy tune still played
on the dead heath-bells. She did not turn
her head to look at a group of dark creatures
further on, who fled from her presence as
she skirted a ravine where they fed. The}'
were about a score of the small wild ponies
known as heath-croppers. They roamed at
large on the undulations of Egdon, but in
numbers too few to detract much from the
solitude.

The pedestrian noticed nothing just now,
and a clue to her abstraction was afforded
by a trivial incident. A bramble caught hold
of her skirt, and checked her progress. In-
stead of putting it off and hastening along
she yielded herself up to the pull, and stood
passively still. When she began to extricate
herself it was by turning round and round on



124 ^^^'^ RETURN OF THE NATIVE.

her axis, and so unwinding the prickly switch.
She was In a desponding reverie.

Her course was in the direction of the
small undying fire which had drawn the
attention of the men on Blackbarrow and of
Wlldeve In the valley below. A faint illu-
mination from Its rays began to grow upon
her face, and it Increased In definiteness as
she drew nearer. The fire soon revealed
itself to be lit, not on the level ground, but
on a salient corner or redan of earth, at the
junction of two converging bank fences.
Outside was a ditch, dry except Immediately
under the fire, where there was a large pool,
bearded all round by heather and rushes. In
the smooth w^ater of the pool the fire ap-
peared upside down.

The banks meeting behind were bare of
a hedge, save such as was formed by discon-
nected tufts of furze, standing upon stems
along the top, like Impaled heads above a
city wall. A white mast, fitted up with spars
and other nautical tackle, could be seen rising



THE THREE WOMEN. I 25

against the dark clouds whenever the flames
played brightly enough to reach it. Alto-
gether the scene had much the appearance of
a fortification upon which had been kindled a
beacon fire.

Nobody was visible ; but ever and anon
a whitish something moved above the bank
from behind, and vanished again. Close
watching would have shown It to be a small
human hand, in the act of lifting pieces of
fuel into the fire ; but for all that could be
seen the hand, like that which troubled
Belshazzar, was there alone. Occasionally
an ember rolled off the bank, and dropped
with a hiss Into the pool.

At one side of the pool rough steps built
of clods enabled anyone who wished to do so
to mount the bank ; and this the woman did.
Within was a paddock in an uncultivated
state, though bearing evidence of having
once been tilled ; but the heath and fern had
insidiously crept in, and were reasserting
their old supremacy. Further ahead were



126 THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE.

dimly visible an irregular dwelling-house,
garden, and outbuildings, backed by a clump
of firs.

The young lady — for youth had revealed
its presence in her buoyant bound up the
bank — walked along the top instead of de-
scending inside, and came to the corner
where the fire was burning. One reason for
the permanence of the blaze was now mani-
fest : the fuel consisted of hard pieces of
wood, cleft and sawn — the knotty boles of
old thorn-trees which grew in twos and threes
about the hill-sides. A yet unconsumed pile
of these lay in the inner angle of the bank ;
and from this corner the upturned face of a
little boy greeted her eyes. He was dilatorily
throwing up a piece of wood into the fire
every now and then, a business which seemed
to have engaged him a considerable part of the
evening, for his face was somewhat weary.

' I am glad you have come, Miss
Eustacia,' he said, with a sigh of relief. ' I
don't like biding by myself



THE THREE WOMEN. 1 27

' Nonsense. I have only been a little
way for a walk. I have been gone only
twenty minutes.'

* It seemed long,' murmured the sad boy.
' And you have been so many times.'

* Why, I thought you would be pleased
to have a bonfire. Are you not much obliged
to me for making you one ? '

* Yes ; but there's nobody here to play
wi' me.'

* I suppose nobody has come while I've
been away ? '

' Nobody except your grandfather : he
looked out of doors once for 'ee. I told him
you were walking round upon the hill to look
at the other bonfires.'

' A good boy.'

' I think I hear him coming again, miss.'

An old man came into the remoter lio^ht
of the fire from the direction of the home-
stead. He was the same who had overtaken
the reddleman on the road that afternoon.
He looked wistfully to the top of the bank at



128 THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE.

the woman who stood there, and his teeth,
which were quite unimpaired, showed like
parlan from his parted h'ps.

' When are you coming indoors, Eu-
stacia ? ' he asked. ' 'Tis almost bedtime.
I've been home these two hours, and am
tired out. Surely 'tis somewhat childish of
you to stay out playing at bonfires so long,
and wasting such fuel. My precious thorn
roots, the rarest of all firing, that I laid by
on purpose for Christmas — you have burnt
'em nearly all ! '

' I promised Johnny a bonfire, and it
pleases him not to let it go out just yet,' said
Eustacia, in a way which told at once that
she was absolute queen here. * Grandfather,
you go in to bed. I shall follow you soon.
You like the fire, don't you, Johnny ? '

The boy looked up doubtfully at her and
murmured, ' I don't think I want it any
longer.'

Her grandfather had turned back again,
and did not hear the boy's reply. As soon



THE THREE WOMEN. 1 29

as the white-haired man had vanished slie
said in a tone of pique to the child, * Un-
grateful little boy, how can you contradict
me ? Never shall you have a bonfire again
unless you keep it up now. Come, tell me
you like to do things for me, and don't
deny it'

The repressed child said, 'Yes, I do,' and
continued to stir the fire perfunctorily.

' Stay a little longer and I will give you a
crooked sixpence,' said Eustacia, more gently.
* Put in one piece of wood every two or three
minutes, but not too much at once. I am
going to walk along the ridge a little longer,
but I shall keep on coming to you. And if
you hear a frog jump into the pond with a
flounce, like a stone thrown in, be sure you
run and tell me, because it is a sign of rain.'

* Yes, Eustacia.'
' Miss Vye, sir.'

' Miss Vy — stacia.'

* That will do. Now put in one stick
more.'

VOL. I. K



130 THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE.

The little slave went on feeding the fire
as before. He seemed a mere automaton,
galvanised Into moving and speaking by the
wayward Eustacla's will. He might have
been the brass statue which Albertus Magnus
is said to have animated just so far as to
make it chatter, and move, and be his servant.

Before going on her walk again the young
girl stood still on the bank for a few instants
and listened. It was to the full as lonely a
place as Blackbarrow, though at rather a
lower level ; and it was more sheltered from
wind and weather on account of the few firs
to the north. The bank enclosed the whole
homestead, and well protected It from the
lawless state of the world without ; It was
formed of thick square clods, dug from the
ditch on the outside, and built up with a
slight batter or incline, which forms no slight
defence where hedges will not grow because
of the wind and the wilderness, and where
wall materials are unattainable. Otherwise
the situation was quite open, commanding



THE THREE WOMEN.



the whole length of the valley which reached
to the river behind Wildeve's house. Hieh

o

above this to the right, and much nearer
thitherward than the Quiet Woman inn, the
blurred contour of Blackbarrow obstructed
the sky.

After her attentive survey of the wild
slopes and hollow ravines a gesture of
impatience escaped Eustacia. She vented
petulant words every now and then ; but
there were sighs between her words, and
sudden listenings between her sighs. De-
scending from her perch, she again sauntered
off towards Blackbarrow, though this time
she did not go the whole way.

Twice she reappeared at intervals of a
few minutes, and each time she said :

' Not any flounce into the pond yet, little



man ? '



* No, Miss Eustacia,' the child replied.

'Well,' she said at last, * I shall soon be
going in ; and then I will give you the
crooked sixpence, and let you go home.'



K 2



132 THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE.

' Thank'ee, Miss Eustacla,' said the tired
stoker, breathing more easily. And Eustacia
again strolled away from the fire; but this
time not towards Blackbarrow. She skirted
the bank, and went round to the wicket
before the house, where she stood motionless,
looking at the scene.

Fifty yards off rose the corner of the two
converging banks, with the fire upon it :
within the bank, lifting up to the fire one
stick at a time, just as before, the figure of
the little child. She idly watched him as he
occasionally climbed up in the nook of the
bank and stood beside the brands. The
wind blew the smoke, and the child's hair,
and the corner of his pinafore, all in the same
direction : the breeze died, and the pinafore
and hair lay still, and the smoke went up
straight.

While Eustacia looked on from this
distance the boy's form visibly started : he
slid down the bank and ran across towards
the white gate.



THE THREE WOMEN. 1 33

' Well ? ' said Eustacla.

' A hop-frog have jumped Into the pond.
Yes, I heard 'en ! '

' Then it is going to rain, and you had
better go home. You will not be afraid ? '
She spoke hurriedly, as if her heart had leapt
into her throat at the boy's words.

' No, because I shall hae the crooked
sixpence.'

' Yes, here it is. Now run as fast as you
can — not that way — through the garden here.
No other boy in the heath has had such a
bonfire as yours.'

The boy, who clearly had had too much
of a good thing, marched away into the
shadows with alacrity. When he was eone
Eustacia, leaving her telescope and hourglass
by the gate, brushed forward from the wicket
towards the angle of the bank, under the fire.

Here, screened by the outwork, she


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